The Horrific Semicolon and How to Use it

yieldsemocolon3That’s right. You read it correctly. I hate semicolons. You would think that, as an English major, I would love all forms of grammar. You would think that I have stuffed animals of each grammatical symbol. Unfortunately, while I would love some grammatically based stuffed animals, I will always hate semi-colons. Now I know all of you probably hate semicolons too, which is why I’m doing this post today–because I’ve had about five requests for it since releasing the site yesterday. So let’s talk semicolons!

What is a semi-colon?

If you’re Kurt Vonnegut (rest his soul), your definition of a semi-colon is (in relation to creative writing):

Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

However, since I’m clearly not Kurt Vonnegut (rest his soul), let me find a real definition:

the punctuation mark (;) used to indicate a major division in a sentence where a more distinct separation is felt between clauses or items on a list than is indicated by a comma, as between the two clauses of a compound sentence.

Thank you Dictionary.com. Let’s give a nice round of applause to Dictionary.com. Ok, moving on.

If you’re anything like me, then that definition is crap. What is a “distinct separation?” A “clause?” A “compound sentence?!” Ok, I admit, I know what those things are. But you might not, so let’s simplify the definition to what I use:

the punctuation mark that functions as a “super-comma,” with super separating strength

Tell me that’s not awesome. Exactly. That’s what I thought.

Ultimately they are used to separate two independent clauses–which means two complete sentences. Think of it like a husband and wife–they’re two separate people, but joined together through marriage. The sentences (or independent clauses) are separate, but joined together through the semicolon. There are different ways to separate though, so let’s take a look at how it’s done.

Commas, semicolons, and independent clauses

A comma is used when you’re connecting two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction, also known as F.A.N.B.O.Y.S. (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So). This rule ALWAYS applies. If you are using one of the aforementioned conjunctions, you will NOT use a semi-colon. Furthermore, if you are connecting two complete sentences with a coordinating conjunction, a comma goes before the conjunction. If you are connecting a dependent clause (non-complete sentence) to an independent, you do not need the comma (e.g.: I like to read and write).

Examples: It’s raining outside, but I forgot my umbrella. I like to sing, and I also like to dance. (Notice if we take the coordinating conjunctions out, the material after the conjunction could be its own sentence.)

A semicolon is used in two other situations. I’ll address them one at a time. The first situation is when you want to connect two sentences that are related to each other without a conjunction. If the sentences aren’t closely related, you do not want to connect them with a semicolon. Would you make the sentence, “Dinosaurs are extinct, and Kelly likes to write?” No. Same here.

Examples: It’s raining outside; I forgot my umbrella. I like to sing; I also like to dance.

The other situation is when you use an adverbial conjunction. “What the HECK is an adverbial conjunction!?” They’re basically all those fancy words you use in essays, like “however,” “although,” “moreover,” “therefore,” “nevertheless,” and “thus.” This is where the situation becomes a little more complicated. Every time you use “however” as a conjunction? Yeah, you should be separating it with a semicolon.

Examples: It’s raining outside; however, I forgot my umbrella. I like to sing; moreover, I like to dance.

Why is it like this? Notice I’ve been using the same examples throughout this post. They can each function as their own sentences. It would be the same as saying “It’s raining outside. However, I forgot my umbrella.” The reason we use the semicolon instead is to show there’s a relationship between the two (remember the husband and wife? View this like their wedding bands).

Alternate use: your Super Bowl party grocery list

Semicolons are used for one other thing, separating parts of gigantic, detailed lists. In this case, they’re used if there are commas within the items you’re listing. It’s not exactly something that makes sense unless you see it, so let me show you:

Example: I have traveled to Cancun, Mexico; Paris, France; London, England; and New York City, USA.

Because you need to use a comma between the city and country it belongs to, you have to insert a semicolon where a comma would normally go. So if your list is a bit too comma-friendly, you may need to use some semicolons.

So why do you hate semicolons?

I don’t think a semicolon should be the bright blinking light that screams “THESE SENTENCES ARE RELATED!!!” I think if things are structured well, it’ll work itself out on its own. Do you HAVE to use semicolons? Unless a professor tells you that you have to, no. However, if you want to really show that two independent ideas are tightly related, then a semicolon is the way to do it.

Posted in Grammar Quick Fix.

8 Comments

  1. Great post. I especially liked the husband-wife analogy continued in the wedding bands. That works very well. Keep up the good work! 🙂

  2. Oh, thank you! I’ve been searching al over the web for a definition; yours was definitely the best! (Notice I used a semi-colon, I think I used it wrong, but I really understood! x)

  3. Everyone–Thank you so much for the positive responses! I’m glad I could help!

    Marcelo–Don’t worry about it; you used the semicolon correctly! 🙂

  4. Hurray for the grammar gestapo! Though I fear it may lead to something similar to, “I liked this article; it was very informative; however, I think you’re too hard the semicolon; it’s the only one-eyed friend that we can play with in class.” On second thought that had a nice ring to it.

  5. I hate semicolons too! For a long list with city/state names separated by commas, okay. What a waste of a good key on my keyboard. Maybe they could replace it with a smiley face or “LOL.” I was so infuriated with one author’s (who shall not remain nameless, Jonathan Kellerman!) overuse of that useless punctuation mark that I threw his book in the garbage at the pool of the hotel. A semicolon is about as useless as a semi-erection.

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